Pakistan has to cope with more refugees and internally displaced persons than any member of the European Union. State authorities have proven unable to support them adequately. Popular suffering, however, compounds the Islamist militancy that is threatening the country's security. Mohammad Ali Khan reports from Peshawar
This summer, 50 year-old Asmatullah, an Afghan refugee residing in Pakistan, was forced to leave his abode once again. He took along an extended family of 18 members.
In 1979, Asmatullah had fled from Afghanistan's Lughman Province, taking refuge in Kouga Camp – one of the major camps set up in Pakistan during the war that followed the Red Army's invasion of Afghanistan.
In May 2009, he was displaced once more, this time within the host country, after Pakistan's army had launched an offensive against Islamist militants in the Buner district of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
"We used to get aid from the international community in camps until the mid-90s, but this time we did not get anything," laments Asmatullah. "Only Pakistani citizens with a National Identity Card (NIC) can be registered as IDP."
Even though Afghans living in Pakistan maintain refugee status, they have not been getting any kind of food assistance from United Nations' High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) since 1995. The international humanitarian agency speaks of "donor fatigue".
Due to the suspension of aid and lacking livelihoods in war-ravaged Afghanistan, over 1.9 million registered Afghan refugees became involved in different occupations in Pakistan. The government had issued them Proof of Registration (PoR) special cards, validating their stay in the host country until 2009. This has now been extended until 2012, because of Afghanistan's ongoing instability. For all those who had to flee their new homes in Pakistan, however, that is of little help.
The refugee camps' history was troubled from the very beginning. They provided shelter to the war-haunted refugees after Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in late 1979. On the other hand, they also served as nurseries for recruitments for guerrilla warfare, which was initially backed by the USA, Saudi Arabia and other countries. After the terror attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, however, the USA turned against the Islamists, and the new war in Afghanistan triggered violence in Pakistan too.
Waiting for disaster to occur
Pakistan launched a first military offensive in early 2004 to flush out the Taliban and their sympathisers from the tribal area of South Waziristan. This operation caused a wave of internal displacement from that region to NWFP districts. Nonetheless, militants became more active in North Waziristan and other tribal areas, and their influence spread to other parts of the country.
In April this year, Pakistan's army started a massive operation in Swat and its adjoining districts. In terms of people, the affected region was housing a quarter of the NWFP population. According to UN estimates, some 3.5 million people fled their homes. The humanitarian crisis in the region was comparable to the one during the Afghan war in the 80s. In the past 15 years, humanity had not seen displacement of such a scale.
The sudden influx of IDPs into Pakistan's heartland exposed the inability of government agencies to react. Most of the IDPs either lived with host families, or had rented houses in different parts of the country. Less than four per cent of the displaced people, however, were residing in relief camps run by local and international organisations.
Overlapping jurisdictions, lack of coordination and limited governmental capacity are evident everywhere. Desperate families simply did not get the support they needed. According to Sikandar Hayat Sherpao, a member of the NWFP's Provincial Assembly, the national administration failed to take timely action to extend relief operations for the IDPs: "It waited for the disaster to occur."
Sherpao comments: "Man-made disaster at least gives time to the administration to prepare for the crisis, but this advantage could not be exploited in the current displacement."
The UN launched a flash appeal for people displaced by clashes between security forces and Taliban in Swat and other districts of Malakand division. "The scale of this displacement is extraordinary in terms of size and speed and has caused incredible suffering," said Martin Mogwanja, the acting UN humanitarian coordinator. "We require a total of $ 543 million assistance until the end of December this year," he said.
So far, however, the UN has managed to mobilise pledges worth only $ 200 million. The World Food Programme (WFP) is channelling critically needed food assistance to the suffering people. As matters have become more quiet again in Swat and Malakand, majority of the IDPs had returned home. The state, however, remains unable to help people in need.
Pakistan is vulnerable to both natural and man-made disasters. Afghan migration or current internal displacement, earthquakes or flash floods – they all require an effective mechanism for risk mitigation, which this country of 160 million people is still lacking. The 2005 earthquake in Pakistan caused great human and material loss, as thousands of families were displaced. Subsequent geological studies predict similar events in the future as well.
Following the 2005 earthquake, Pakistan put in place a National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). Donor agencies provided technical input. Almost four years later, however, Pakistan's government still proved unable to act decisively in support of IDPs at the time of the Swat offensive. As the new crisis unfolded, yet another body was set up: the Emergency Response Unit (ERU). The government argued that the NDMA didn't have the capacity to extend relief to the IDPs.
Many deaths due to bad planning
Typical challenges of disaster relief include the management of camps, sufficient food supply and identification as well as registration of the affected families. Pakistan's authorities were unable to handle these tasks in 2005, and they were unable to do so again this year.
After the earthquake in 2005, the government equally failed to chalk out Standing Operational Procedures (SOPs). The roles of the various government departments in disaster situations have not been defined, nor have suitable sites for relief camps made out. As a consequence, camps were once again installed in unsuitable places this year – resulting in many deaths due to heat and unhygienic conditions.
The greatest challenge now is to rehabilitate the infrastructure destroyed in the conflict. Billions of dollars will be needed. In Swat alone, the most affected district, more than 200 schools have been blown up by militants in the last two years. Shakeel Qadir, head of Provincial Relief, Rehabilitation and Settlement Authority, says that there is so much devastation that rehabilitation without the support of the international community is impossible.
Suffering will breed further discontent
As IDPs continue to return to the North, a new wave of displacement in southern Pakistan started after the military operation initiated against Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The US administration had put a reward of $ 5 million on capturing him. Mehsud was killed in a missile attack fired by an unmanned US predator on August 5 at his native South Waziristan Agency.
People from the conflict area fled, taking refuge in other parts of Pakistan. Reports suggest that no tangible aid has reached them so far. While Mehsud's recent killing was considered a strategic success, it remains to be seen to what that triumph will outweigh the damage done in the long run. Unless IDPs are able to return home to a decent standard of living, their suffering will breed further discontent and disaffection.
Hopefully, past mistakes will not be repeated for ever. As a wise person once said, the error of the past should lead to wisdom and success in the future.
Mohammad Ali Khan
© Development and Cooperation 2009
Mohammad Ali Khan is a staff reporter with the Daily Dawn, based at the paper's Peshawar office.